With the end of May getting closer, the Kentucky men’s basketball roster for the 2023-24 season remains stuck at just seven confirmed scholarship players.
Obviously, that won’t be enough.
The Cats are still waiting for NBA Draft decisions from Oscar Tshiebwe, Antonio Reeves and Chris Livingston, with the latest expectation being that Reeves — not projected as a pick this year — will ultimately choose to return, while Tshiebwe and Livingston continue to gauge interest from the league’s decision-makers in hopes of staying in the draft pool.
Those three Wildcats have until May 31 to make a final decision.
A few days ago, it looked like Kentucky would get some help via the transfer portal in the form of San Diego State forward Keshad Johnson, but he announced his commitment to Arizona on Saturday, the latest blow to the Cats’ offseason recruiting efforts. The nation’s No. 1-ranked transfer — former Michigan center Hunter Dickinson — announced his commitment to Kansas over UK and others earlier this month.
As of now, the only two players taller than 6-foot-7 on the Cats’ projected 2023-24 roster are sophomore center Ugonna Onyenso — a 6-11 returnee who played sparingly last season — and 7-foot recruit Aaron Bradshaw, who is listed at 210 pounds and generally plays a more away-from-the basket game than his height would indicate.
If Tshiebwe doesn’t return, Kentucky will almost certainly need more help in the frontcourt. Even if the UK star is back in Lexington, the Wildcats will probably be keeping an eye on possible additions to help out in the paint.
One intriguing possibility is North Dakota State star Grant Nelson, who — like Tshiebwe — competed at the NBA Combine this past week in Chicago in hopes of boosting his draft stock while he mulls a stay-or-go decision on his basketball future.
Nelson — officially listed at 6-11 and 235 pounds — has actually already been linked to Kentucky, with reports of contact between the two parties shortly after it was revealed this month that the 21-year-old had entered the portal.
In an interview with the Herald-Leader at the combine on Thursday night, Nelson said he’s been so focused on the NBA Draft process that he has handed over everything related to a possible college recruitment to his older brother, Justin, who has been the one taking phone calls from coaches and getting a sense of potential suitors should Nelson remove his name from the draft.
“My plan — I want to stay in the draft,” Nelson said. “That’s my main goal — get drafted this year. But I entered the transfer portal and kept my eligibility just as like, if anything does happen, I do have that to fall back on. But my main goal is to get drafted this year.”
With less than two weeks before that deadline hits, getting drafted this year is looking like a long shot for Nelson, who was not mentioned in The Athletic’s recently updated mock draft and is not listed at all on ESPN’s new board ranking the top 100 prospects for the 58-pick draft.
Still, there’s clearly some level of interest in Nelson among NBA teams. He said Thursday that he’d already met with representatives from six franchises and had meetings scheduled with three more teams for the following day. He’s hoping that these talks — and any possible workouts that follow — will result in more clarity over a team’s willingness to draft him.
“I think if it’s with the right team, I’m all in,” Nelson said. “A good developmental team — a team that will take a shot with me, that I think is a good fit for me. If it’s a good feeling, and I think I’ll fit well in their program, then yeah.”
If he doesn’t hear something like that, it might mean a return to college basketball, where Nelson still has two more seasons of eligibility remaining.
If that happens, he’d be arguably the top available player in the country. 247Sports’ transfer rankings have Nelson at No. 3 overall, behind only Dickinson and former Oregon center Kel’el Ware, who has already committed to Indiana.
A fit for Kentucky?
If Nelson does return to college and Tshiebwe stays in the draft, expect to hear the transfer’s name linked with Kentucky.
On paper, he’d certainly be a fit for what the Wildcats would need.
Nelson measured at 6-10 without shoes at the combine — nearly 3 inches taller than Tshiebwe, for comparison’s sake — and had a 7-foot wingspan, officially weighing in at 223 pounds. He averaged 17.9 points, 9.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocked shots per game this past season. Plenty productive, albeit against a considerably lower level of competition.
He did turn some heads at the combine, however. And that happened even before the five-on-five games began.
Nelson was the best at the entire camp in the lane-agility drill — which measures overall mobility and a player’s versatility while moving in the paint — clocking a time (9.9 seconds) that was markedly better than many of the guards in attendance. He had a maximum vertical of 35.5 inches — 3 inches better than Tshiebwe, just a half-inch lower than Cason Wallace — and flashed an interesting skill set in the games.
Offensively, he created for himself — starting his attacks at the basket from well beyond the perimeter and going right at smaller and quicker players. He showed athleticism all over the court and appeared comfortable taking shots from long range.
Defensively, he played away from the basket while still contesting shots at the rim.
“I’ve been known for blocking shots, but I don’t think I’ve been known for getting out and guarding people on the perimeter,” he said. “I tested really well. I can move well laterally. I think it’s just a matter of me getting into the ball a little more.
“But, yeah, I definitely can move out on the perimeter.”
Grant Nelson is one of the most interesting prospects in the 2023 NBA Draft. He’s 6’11 but handles and moves like a guard and he’s a really good athlete as well. He’s currently averaging 16/8/2 and 2 blocks a game. He’s also shooting well shooting 51% from the field. pic.twitter.com/mziL256LB7
— KJ (@Kjpistons) January 10, 2023
While Nelson might seem a perfect fit for Kentucky’s possible needs, his style of play is one that John Calipari has never really featured in his UK big men. The majority of Nelson’s damage is done away from the basket — at least to start — and while he said he can be a mismatch problem by taking smaller defenders inside to post up, it’s clear he’s at his best facing the rim.
If Kentucky does get more deeply involved in a potential Nelson recruitment, Calipari won’t have much in the way of recent examples of players who have excelled with that style. But the UK coach could also sell Nelson on a new offensive approach for the Cats, especially with the similarly skilled Bradshaw on the way.
Nelson did say that he thinks his main strengths in the NBA next season would be as a rebounder and rim-protector — two skills that Kentucky would almost certainly welcome if Tshiebwe decides to go pro. Whether or not Nelson would be given ample opportunity to create from the perimeter is another question.
One area of his focus this offseason has been working on his three-point shooting. He made just 25 of 93 long-range attempts (26.9 percent) this past season after shooting 32.2 percent from three as a sophomore and 35.6 percent as a freshman. That’s another skill he’d probably be looking to show NBA scouts next season if he ends up back in college.
If Nelson does return to school, he’d probably have his pick of destinations. Several successful high-major programs joined Kentucky to voice interest when he hit the portal a few weeks ago. Even more will call if it’s clear he’s available.
Would UK be a serious possibility? Nelson isn’t closing any doors.
“I haven’t done any recruiting (discussions),” he said. “So I guess anything’s open.”